Archive for August, 2015

Falling Down (1993)

Director: Joel Schumacher

Starring: Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey, Rachel Ticotin, Tuesday Weld, Frederic Forrest

Every day, people struggle to find their place in this world. The lucky ones who make it work carve out a piece of the proverbial pie for themselves and their families. Some who aren’t as fortunate wind up as lost souls who become frustrated and lash out. We’ve seen their kind all too often. Occasionally they show up on the television, their images displayed 24/7 by all the news outlets for all the wrong reasons. What we don’t hear about as frequently are the stories of those who’ve worked hard their whole adult lives, only to have it pulled out from under them on the day when they are considered non-essential personnel. How one handles the idea that they are no longer relevant or necessary is what makes up the difference between our two main characters in “Falling Down.”

Bill Foster (Michael Douglas) is a man who has always had something of a short fuse, sometimes scaring those close to him half to death, but never really having been pushed into violence. He’d always felt secure enough in his work and in his marriage that he never took it that far. Yet, the potential danger was always there, bubbling just underneath the surface. From his clean-cut appearance, including a white shirt and tie, you’d think the guy was a Mr. Rogers type. One hot Los Angeles morning, Bill reaches his boiling point. After becoming fed up with endless highway traffic delays (in a claustrophobic scene meant as an homage to Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2”), Bill abandons his car with the personalized license plate ‘D-FENS’ and continues his journey on foot. When pressed, Bill simply states, “I’m going home!” This day is special to Bill, as it is his little girl’s birthday.

His destination would make Bill a sympathetic character under normal circumstances, and it does until we learn the whole truth about him. Bill has been unemployed for over a year, his marriage is long since over and his ex-wife Beth (Barbara Hershey) has even issued a restraining order against him. Still, nothing will deter Bill from making his way to his former house in Venice, California. Anyone standing in his way between the highway and his home had better clear a path. “Falling Down” would not be one tenth as intriguing if everyone complied with Bill’s wishes.

Some of the roadblocks in Bill’s journey are representative of everyday complaints we find ourselves making. For instance, he balks at having to pay the Korean convenience store owner 85 cents for a can of soda when it won’t give him enough change for the pay phone. In response, he lobbies for a return to a time when prices were more reasonable, trashing the store as he does it. In one of the movie’s best sequences, he enters a fast food restaurant and interrupts the lives of its customers and employees. He has it in mind that he wants breakfast, and causes a scene when it’s revealed that they stopped serving breakfast shortly before he arrived. To force the issue, Bill pulls out a gun (one of many acquired in an earlier run-in with a Latino gang), but it’s all for show. He even accidentally fires a few rounds into the ceiling. Eventually changing his mind, Bill orders from the lunch menu. It is upon receiving his food that Bill once again makes an observation that we’ve all made at one time or another: Why the heck do the burgers in the fast food menus always look thicker and juicier than the one in your hand?

During the Charles Bronson “Death Wish” days, Bill Foster might have been portrayed as an anti-heroic vigilante. Michael Douglas instead plays a troubled, confused and ultimately sad man who has allowed the world to beat him down, but one who doesn’t see himself as others see him. Bill at one point asks in a surprised tone of voice, “I’m the bad guy?!” Playing the other side of the coin is Sgt. Prendergast (Robert Duvall), a man who is on his last day on the job as a police officer. Like Bill, Prendergast faces an uncertain future, one which he is forcing upon himself so that his nervous wife (Tuesday Weld) won’t have to spend every day wondering if he’ll come home again. Unlike Bill, Prendergast is meeting the changes in his life with grace and dignity. It is natural, through the processes of motion picture conventions, that these two should cross paths in a final showdown. But to succumb to the notion that this is a true contest of good vs. evil is to ignore all the evidence. There are critters lurking about in this story that are more soulless than Bill will ever allow himself to become. The strongest example of this is the army surplus store owner (Frederic Forrest) who reveals himself to be an unflinching neo-Nazi, a man with nothing but hate in his heart. Bill himself has legitimate points to make about modern consumerism and the class system. It’s the ways in which he goes about exposing these areas of our society that are wrong.

The famous nursery rhyme about a certain English overpass’s imminent destruction serves as a metaphor for the decline of Bill Foster’s psyche. Throughout the film, he himself is “falling down.” It is for this reason that one must keep in mind, however amusing or quotable certain scenes or lines of dialogue may be, we are not bearing witness to a comedy here. “Falling Down” is actually a very tragic tale, but is so well-acted by its leads that it rises above the dark, melancholy cloud that its story casts. It’s easily one of Douglas’s three best pictures of his acting career, and probably the best in the career of director Joel Schumacher (with the possible exception of “The Lost Boys”). Made during a time when the US was entering into a period of slow but steady economic recovery, “Falling Down” is also a movie that reaps the benefits of possessing a story with the same resonance in 2015 as it had in 1993.

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Uncle Buck (1989)

Director: John Hughes

Starring: John Candy, Jean Louisa Kelly, Macaulay Culkin, Gaby Hoffman, Amy Madigan, Jay Underwood, Laurie Metcalf

A favorite of mine since I was a kid, “Uncle Buck” has taken on a whole new meaning in the last few years. Now a man in my early thirties, I have grown closer to the age of the main character and, like him, I have since become an uncle. If any part of my life hasn’t turned out as I expected, much of that is made up of things I could have changed (or still could). On the list of things I could not have anticipated, the best of all of them is the magic of unclehood. Loving these kids as I do, I want to be their best friend. I want them to experience things I never did or could. Most of all, I want to watch as they grow in to the amazing adults I know they will be someday. I would be failing in my responsibilities as their uncle if I felt otherwise. This, to me, is what the core of “Uncle Buck” is all about.

Buck Russell (John Candy) is a 40-year old Chicago native who has a nasty habit of taking the easy way out in life. He doesn’t have a job, instead choosing to base his entire yearly income on the winnings produced by fixed horse races. Buck is unmarried and without children, although his on again/off again girlfriend of eight years, Chanice (Amy Madigan), would like very much to fill the roles of both wife and mother. Buck’s involvement in his brother Bob’s family has been minimal. His sister-in-law Cindy dislikes him so much that she has folded the edge of her wedding photo that includes Buck, just so she won’t have to look at him or acknowledge that he exists. He hasn’t even seen them since they moved from Indianapolis to Chicago, not since before the births of their two younger children. What he can remember of their first child, Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly) is that the two of them had a healthy relationship. That was before Tia became a teenager with a chip on her shoulder.

One night, the Russell household is shaken by the news that Cindy’s father has suffered a heart attack. Quickly, Bob and Cindy make plans to drive up to Indianapolis, minus the kids. The idea being that all three have school that should not be interrupted. Feeling insulted, Tia takes this as a sign of parental abandonment. When the usual list of preferred babysitters turns up nothing, Buck is called upon as a last resort. The morning after, Tia and Buck begin a game of one-upmanship that will last almost the entire duration of Buck’s stay. This grows to include and indeed focus in on Tia’s relationship with a boy who goes by the name of Bug (Jay Underwood), a young man with only one thing on his mind and the will to prey upon unsuspecting girls like Tia to get it. Buck instantly recognizes this trait because it reminds him of what he was like at that age.

While trying to save Tia from the hole she’s been digging for herself, it slowly dawns on Buck that he hasn’t exactly been the best role model. Sure, he has shown nothing but love and affection for his brother’s kids while he’s been looking after them and has taken an interest in all that they say and do, but what has Buck done to make his own life any better? Taking shortcuts and living vicariously through others is not enough to make it in this world. The resources for a better life are all there for the taking. Buck has only lacked the motivation to reach out and grab a firm hold on them. Many of John Hughes’ comedies have presented their adult characters as self-involved, dimwitted, and otherwise incapable of relating to their youthful counterparts. “Uncle Buck” stands as one of the few where Hughes gives us an adult who not only understands where the kids are coming from when no one else will, but shows enough potential for growth on his own that the experience may even help to change him for the better.

Had I been asked when this movie was first released which of the three actors portraying the Russell children I thought had the best chance at stardom, I would have said Jean Louisa Kelly without missing a beat. Kelly’s honest and powerful portrayal of the rebellious Tia shows her to have been John Candy’s equal, a feat that was nearly impossible to pull off. The two spend so much of the movie at odds that, when it comes time for Kelly to show that Tia finally understands Buck and feels remorse for her treatment of him, we as the audience share the raw emotion. Of course, “Uncle Buck” was followed the next year by the smash hit “Home Alone” …also a John Hughes script… and Macaulay Culkin became a star overnight. Culkin does well as Tia’s brother Miles, and is actually much better here than in either “Home Alone” or its sequel, but still does not stand out as much as his older “Uncle Buck” co-stars.

Gone but never forgotten is John Candy. Although he left us far too soon, his films have stood the test of time. Ever the lovable oaf, my favorite movie in which he appears is and will always be “Spaceballs,” Mel Brooks’ parody of “Star Wars” and other sci-fi films. However, among Candy’s movies in which he was the star, none quite compare to “Uncle Buck.” This one has held up over the years and, I would argue, has improved with age. If it shows up on television, I’ll watch especially for the scene in which Buck has his meeting with the vice principal of the elementary school. In this scene, he tells her exactly what should be told to anyone who dares to call themselves an educator while failing to recognize a child’s potential. Maybe it is the product of Buck’s own past dealings with teachers/principals, but his strong words get the point across and show how ready for parenthood he is, even if he doesn’t see it himself.

Batman (1989)

Director: Tim Burton

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance

Twenty-six summers ago, I wonder if anyone could have envisioned the explosion of comic book/superhero films we see today. Every couple of months or so, either DC or (more likely) Marvel is churning out another one. Back in 1989, however, the now mile-long list of films from this genre was limited to mere inches. Of the few that were in existence, most hadn’t made an exceptionally big splash. In 1986, “Howard the Duck” crashed and burned, and its ashes were doused in urine. It was so bad that Marvel didn’t really get back into the game until more than a decade later. Up to this point, only Superman had really grabbed anyone’s attention at the movies for DC Comics. Any prior big-screen experience for Superman’s Justice League partner had been the 1966 big-screen adaptation of the Adam West “Batman” TV series. Rather than anger fans of that show, I’ll say simply that I like Batman best when he’s not being played for comedy. Finally, in 1989, director Tim Burton would draw not upon the farcical 1960’s, but rather a mix of the Bob Kane/Bill Finger days of the 1940’s and the then-recent Frank Miller Batman stories (as well as Burton’s own brand of surrealism) to give both Batman and superheroes in general a wider audience than they had ever known before.

The orphaned son of Thomas and Martha Wayne, billionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) has not been left without the means to carry on nor the motivation to ensure that fewer people in Gotham City should have to live with the horror he has experienced in his life. Having witnessed the murder of his parents when he was just a child, Bruce now patrols the streets of Gotham at night dressed as his alter ego, Batman. Perceived as a mythical figure by the police officers and criminals who’ve yet to cross his path, Batman’s true identity is known only by Bruce’s butler and surrogate father, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough). Even reporter Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger), who wishes to get close enough to Bruce to know his heart and close enough to Batman to get a career-making story, has not a clue that the two are one and the same.

The leading source of organized crime in Gotham City is a gang led by Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). His top lieutenant, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), had been carrying on an affair with his boss’s mistress. What Jack didn’t know was that Grissom had already discovered the indiscretion and made plans to remove him from the gang’s future business… permanently. Unfortunately for Grissom… and for Gotham… his plans lead not to Jack’s demise, but to his transformation into the Joker. The man known as Jack Napier displayed aptitude in science, chemistry and art, demonstrating a high level of intelligence, but this was countered by an erratic mental state which gave him homicidal tendencies. As the Joker, this instability becomes amplified (nerve toxins are now his main weapon of choice). His insanity leads him into a love triangle between himself, Vicky Vale, and Bruce Wayne. When Bruce learns of Jack’s role in the death of his parents, as Batman, his vendetta against the Joker becomes about more than just saving innocent lives.

Seeing this movie theatrically with my father at age 7, “Batman” acted as my introduction to all of the film’s major players: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, director Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman. The only familiarity I had going in was with singer Prince, who provided most of the film’s other music not attributed to Elfman. It is this incredible collection of talent and not the film’s simplified story which makes it special in my eyes (that and, of course, the nostalgia factor).

“Batman” would simply not have been what it was with lesser actors. As Vicky Vale (a character which has yet to reappear in any subsequent Batman film), Kim Basinger shows us some of the talent which would eventually win her a Best Supporting Actress award (in 1997, for “L.A. Confidential”). Admittedly, a more recent incarnation of the Joker has caused me to look back and see Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the character for what it is. Rather than slip into the persona of the Joker, Nicholson is more or less playing himself AS the Joker. Doesn’t mean he isn’t fantastic as always. As much of a legend and as much of a scene-stealer as Nicholson is, the real coup in the casting department was in giving the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne to Michael Keaton. At the time, it seemed an unlikely hire, as Keaton was known best for the title role in Burton’s “Beetlejuice.” That character would lead one to think of Keaton then as being a more likely candidate for the Joker. Thank goodness we were wrong because, after all of the films in the series featuring the Caped Crusader (both the good and the bad) that have followed, Keaton remains the definitive Bruce Wayne/Batman. Almost as synomymous with the character is Danny Elfman’s main theme, much in the same way that the John Williams “Superman” theme is.

In addition to being one of the first truly successful films based on a comic book, “Batman” also did its part in the creation of the blockbuster. Oh, it’s true that there were a number of movies that had come before which made a ton of money for their studio. But it wasn’t really until after the summer of 1989 that we started seeing movies making $200 million, $300 million, and now sometimes $400-$600 million on a more annual basis. You can attribute this to inflated ticket prices if you must… but the numbers speak for themselves, regardless.

If I had to rely on just the story, there are ways in which I could pick “Batman” apart if I tried hard enough. Particularly in the climax, there are some small things which bug me, such as how the Joker can know he was “a kid” when he killed the Batman’s parents since he doesn’t even know who Batman really is, or how it is that Joker’s thugs could anticipate that their boss would choose the bell tower of the church when running from Batman. It’s also somewhat strange that more of an emphasis is placed on the Joker’s origins than Batman’s, but whatever. Overall, it’s still a lot of fun, and worth sharing the experience with our children as our parents did for our generation.

Joy Ride (2001)

Director: John Dahl

Starring: Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski

Released right smack in the middle of two of the least productive decades in horror (the satirical, homage-filled 1990’s and the regurgitated remakes of the 2000’s), “Joy Ride” chose to be an homage. Co-writer J.J. Abrams has since made his love for the films of Steven Spielberg crystal clear, in particular with 2011’s “Super 8.” The script for “Joy Ride” has much in common with Spielberg’s first feature film, 1971’s “Duel.” In that film, a man played by Dennis Weaver is mercilessly stalked by a tanker truck for reasons which only the truck’s unseen driver is aware. Had “Joy Ride” carried its homage to “Duel” through to a similar end, it might not have to be filed under “could have been great.”

Lewis Thomas (Paul Walker) embarks on a road trip from UC Berkley to the University of Colorado where he hopes to inspire feelings of romance from childhood friend Venna (Leelee Sobieski) by driving her home for summer break. To this end, Lewis purchases a 1971 Chrysler Newport, hoping to make the trip as fun as possible. Lewis’s plans hit a bit of a snag when his mother calls to ask that he stop in Salt Lake City, Utah to bail out his older brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) from jail. Naturally, once Lewis is there, Fuller invites himself along for the road trip. Just for kicks, Fuller buys a CB radio for the car at a truck stop. Using a hillbilly accent, Fuller plays around with various truck drivers. He then bullies Lewis into pranking one of them, who identifies himself as “Rusty Nail” (voice of Ted Levine). Adopting one of the worst excuses for a feminine voice you’ll ever hear, Lewis assumes the persona of a woman who goes by the handle “Candy Cane.”

Taking the gag too far, Lewis and Fuller lure Rusty to the motel where they are staying for the night, telling him to meet “Candy Cane” in room 17, next door to the room in which they are actually staying. The occupant of room 17, a surly businessman with whom Fuller had words as he was checking in, unwittingly becomes part of the brothers’ elaborate ruse. When Rusty knocks on the door to room 18, Lewis and Fuller eavsdrop on their angry confrontation. What they don’t discover until the next morning when police arrive is just how violently the altercation ended. With the businessman mutilated and hospitalized, the brothers are not arrested but are urged to leave the state of Wyoming and never come back. They agree, and consider the matter resolved. Rusty Nail does not, continuing to haunt them on the CB radio, ultimately causing paranoia when he points out a busted tail light on their car, a fact Lewis had been made aware of earlier. A case of mistaken identity with an ice truck driver leads to the reveal of Rusty Nail’s tanker truck, and the real chase is on.

About halfway through “Joy Ride,” the brothers finally meet up with Venna. Allowing only a brief period for the potential of a love triangle to emerge, the rest of the film focuses mainly on the trio trying to avoid capture/death at the hands of Rusty Nail. Particularly harrowing is the scene in which the friends are forced to abandon their car, run through and hide in a corn field. It is after this, when Rusty Nail captures Venna and the brothers are forced to risk their lives to rescue her, that the film falters.

Not that I don’t appreciate Leelee Sobieski’s inclusion on some levels, but adding her to the mix at the midway point and subsequently giving her almost nothing constructive to do from then on truly damages the tone set by the film’s first half. Both the plot and its intended homage to “Duel” might have been better served if we’d simply stayed with Paul Walker and Steve Zahn. Yet even this has its problems. Through the childish and immature actions which led to their predicament, Lewis and Fuller are not entirely as sympathetic as they could be. Rusty Nail himself could have remained just a scary voice on the radio, negating the need for any one-on-one confrontations and allowing for his truck to remain the source of all physical threats had it not been for the “damsel in distress” part of the movie. Instead, what you have is one part “Duel,” one part “The Hitcher.” For that to really work you need an equivalent to Rutger Hauer here, and there is none to be found.

Despite my complaints, I still managed to enjoy myself while watching “Joy Ride.” It creates tension early and (mostly) sustains it from there, and doesn’t rely on a large body count to get the job done. As I’m not a fan of the “Fast & Furious” franchise, I can safely say that “Joy Ride” is my favorite movie in the career of the dearly departed Paul Walker. It’s better than most horror movies from the early 2000’s have the reputation of being, yet isn’t quite good enough to warrant classic status.